Facebook Let Breitbart Spread Anti-Mask Misinformation on White House COVID Outbreak

Breitbart is misleading readers about the effectiveness of masks, and Facebook and Twitter are fine with that.
October 6, 2020, 12:46pm
Photo by Photo Ken Cedeno/Sipa USA )(Sipa via AP Images

Facebook and Twitter are allowing misinformation about the superspreader event in the White House Rose Garden last week to spread unchecked on their platforms, saying it doesn’t breach their rules.

An article from right-wing website Breitbart claimed that Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) had become infected even though he was wearing a mask during the Sept. 26 event, which many have pinpointed as a likely superspreader event.

The headline was “Tillis Contracted the Coronavirus Despite Wearing a Mask at Event.”

The problem with the article is that Tillis was only wearing his mask for a limited portion of the event where President Donald Trump announced his nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. Pictures that are easily accessible online show Tillis without a mask while indoors at the reception, standing less than six feet away from Coney Barrett and her son.

The article was originally published on Saturday and was shared, liked, and commented on thousands of times on Twitter and Facebook. Neither network put warning labels on the posts to suggest the information was inaccurate.

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Late on Monday Breitbart did update the article on its website to correct its error and note that Tillis was only wearing a mask for a portion of the event. It has not, however, deleted any of the tweets or Facebook posts it published with the original headline. The publication has 1.5 million Twitter followers and 4.5 million Facebook followers.

The article also continues to make the claim that there is a “lack of consensus on the controversial subject” when, in fact, there is widespread consensus among the scientific community that mask-wearing significantly helps stop the spread of COVID-19.

Twitter did not respond to a request for comment about the posts. Facebook told VICE News that the posts did not violate the company’s policies for removal of misinformation that leads to imminent physical harm, like, for example, a false claim that masks don’t work to prevent the spread of the virus.

But it’s clear that this is exactly the meaning that many on social media took from the article.

Facebook posts and tweets citing the original headline continue to be shared on the social networks and are being used as evidence to show that wearing a mask doesn’t work to stop the spread of coronavirus.

This directly contradicts guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which recommends that “people wear masks in public settings and when around people who don’t live in your household, especially when other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain.”

But posts using the article as evidence that masks don’t work continue to be shared on both platforms.

Christian evangelist and conspiracy theorist Rodney Howard-Browne shared the link to his 50,000 Twitter followers, claiming it was evidence Tillis’ infection despite wearing a mask was evidence he was “targeted.”

The theory that Tillis got infected while wearing a mask is also being spread by other high-profile conservative figures, including Diamond and Silk.

And the Breitbart article has inspired copycat articles from other right-wing websites. The hyper-partisan conservative news site Trending Politics ran a story Monday with the headline: “Senator Thom Tillis Tests Positive For COVID, And He WORE A MASK At Barrett Event.”

This article is also being cited as evidence by Facebook users that masks don’t prevent the spread of the disease.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has previously defended the company’s decision to include Breitbart as a "trustworthy" news source by including the publication in its Facebook News tab.

“[Facebook News tab] needs to have a diversity of views in there, so I think you want to have content that represents different perspectives,” Zuckerberg said last year about Breitbart’s inclusion. A Facebook spokesperson said that while Breitbart is currently eligible to appear in the News section, it is not a paid partner and has not met the standards to be highlighted in curated news sections.

For Tillis’ part, he has consistently advocated wearing a mask, and in a Facebook post this weekend he urged North Carolinians “to follow the recommendations of medical experts, including wearing a mask.”

Cover: President Donald Trump makes an announcement in the Rose Garden of the White House to nominate Judge Amy Coney Barrett for the Supreme Court seat left vacant by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's death last week September, 26, 2020 in Washington DC. (Photo by Photo Ken Cedeno/Sipa USA )(Sipa via AP Images)